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Walton's in the Media.
TV Guide
November 24, 1973

On Walton's Mountain or Off...
Life is often a struggle for
Michael Learned

By Edith Efron

"What she beams out in that role," says producer Lee Rich, "is a Baptist disciplinarian firm, but giving at all times. The mother of a home where people love and respect each other, where they are completely honest with one another. She beams out the values for which so many people are so hungry today."

"She's loving," says Gretl Learned. "She's always been there when needed. She was there for all of us. She was the oldest, the strongest. She felt responsible for all of us. In some sense, she brought us up. It was a big responsibility and a burden when you've got your own problems, and your own growing up to do. We've always looked up to her."

Producer Rich is describing actress Michael Learned in her fictional role as the mother of The Waltons. Gretl is describing Michael Learned in her real life role as the eldest of six sisters. The descriptions of both producer and sister are oddly alike: in both, Michael is portrayed as the spiritual backbone of a tightly knit family group.

You might expect from that to meet an obviously strong, nurturing woman. Strangely, that is not the case, as I discovered on spending an evening with Michael Learned recently in Hollywood. A fragile, fashionable blonde, she is quite unlike the strong, stable, work worn pillar of family life that she portrays on screen. Indeed, she seems rather unstable and taut, as if perpetually torn between two inner poles of enjoyment and despair. And both of these elements emerge continuously as she talks about her life.

"My childhood was a very happy time and a very frightening time," she says. "When I think about it, I feel like crying. My family was exhilarating. My father was a writer everything he did, he did brilliantly. My mother encouraged us in the arts. My parents and their friends were very sophisticated and witty. But, at the same time, our life was also something like the Waltons'. We lived on a farm in Connecticut. We didn't have any money. I was in rags. I did all the chores-I carried slop for the pigs, I fed the rabbits, I milked three goats. And I took care of my youngest sisters. I always felt different. I always felt ugly. I always felt slightly ashamed. . . . I was a very lonely child. I cried a lot."

She leaves the family problem a mystery, as does her sister Gretl, out of a desire to protect her parents. Whatever it was, it was painful, and she fled from the pain into fantasy: "I'd go for long walks with my goat, and pretend that I was Heidi. I'd imagine that a beautiful prince would carry me off, and give me a chaste kiss on the forehead. . . . I wanted to be a ballerina. I had visions of 'Swan Lake' . . ."


At 11, Michael moved with her family to Austria, where her father "was doing some work for the State Department." She lived there until she was 14. "That was my growing-into-womanhood period," she says. And it, too, was both happy and tormented. She loved Austria, enjoyed the village school, read voraciously. But she also felt "terribly ugly": "I had a minor breakdown. I cried a great deal. I didn't know what was distressing me. I wasn't able to identify with anybody.


They sent me to boarding school in England." In boarding school the pattern repeated. Again, misery-she hated her life at the school. But she also discovered acting, in a serious way. "I loved the sharing with the audience. To peel away those layers, to crack a scene, and to feel the audience with you. There was nothing like it. There still is nothing like it."


Then she met and fell in love with actor Peter Donat (nephew of Robert Donal), and, once again, her life was both rapturous and miserable: "I was only 16, he was 28. We were married when I was 17. I went from a slob to a very devoted and compulsively clean wife and mother. I worked very hard at being a wife and mother. Some of it was very fulfilling. A lot was very unfulfilling. Peter was very ambitious. His career was his life. I tried to do everything I could to support that." Her marriage lasted for many years. She had three sons-today they are 16, 14 and 10. And her own career remained largely unfulfilled. She fitted acting around home and family, playing Shakespeare at both the U.S. and Canadian Stratford festivals, playing Chekhov off-Broadway in New York, doing some TV work for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and ending up at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. As the years passed, she became increasingly unhappy: "I was trapped. I'd ride around in the car, screaming-and go home and fix breakfast. That perfect wife and mother-it was a role. Like Nora in 'A Doll's House.' And when you become aware that it's a role, you can no longer play it. It was a trap. But Peter didn't do it to me. I did it. It's nobody's fault but my own. I chose that life,"


Last year she was divorced, and she is still feeling the repercussions. "Somewhere, I still feel guilty for breaking my vows. But dammit, I don't want to feel guilty! I still love Peter. I respect him. If he were sick, I'd go to him. But I can't live with him. I've put in my time."


She is still struggling to decide on what kind of life she wants, outside of acting, and has gone through several "stages": "After coming out of my puritanical housewife thing, I became a party girl. I spent time with all the marvelous, witty, crazy people. I thought as long as I was amusing, everything was fine. But it was phony. So I stopped that. Now I'm just trying to be myself. I go to parties, and most of the time it's terribly boring. So I guess I'm searching.


She is also doing a lot of soul searching, in part as a consequence of intensive psychotherapy. She lists her faults and problems calmly: "Self-obsession. Insecurity. A sense of unworthiness. And I have an acid tongue. I never mean it. Then I think about it afterward and realize—yeah. I was hostile. Sometimes I think I'm selfish. Then I think I'm not selfish enough . . ."


Although she became famous, virtually overnight, in the role of Olivia Walton, and scooped up an Emmy in the process, she says very little about her TV career, and what she does say is not overly friendly: On TV itself: "TV is more technical than stage acting. You do it in bits. The camera is in your face. People are standing around. It's as if 20 people are sucking it out of you. You can't let it all out. The stage is a much fuller celebration.'


On The Waltons: "A lot of people say it reminds them of the way things were. There seems to be a yearning for how life used to be. But I frankly think we are more honest now than then. Then, the social rules were made to be broken—so long as nobody talked about it and got caught. I think there was more corruption then than now."


On her role: "It's hard for me to talk about the show, It makes me sound so ungrateful. But there are just so many things you can do. You tell the kids to pick things up. You tell the kids to do their chores. There's a serious limit to it as a creative art form."


On her colleagues: "I don't know them," she says curtly. Then, she re-marks, over casually, "I tend to be a judger. I judge quickly. And my judgments are not always valid."


However negative the vibes she projects about her work, the fact remains that she does it sensitively and beautifully. And when one talks about her to her colleagues, one gets a sort of mirror-image of Michael's own attitudes.


They rave about her as an artist, and they are uncomfortably aware of problems in the personal realm.


Ralph Waite, who plays her husband, speaks with eloquent sincerity about his admiration for Michael's acting: "It's incredible, the emotions she communicates with almost no movement. It's lovely. Very rare." But when he is asked to comment on Michael as a person, he reacts as if he had been asked to reveal state secrets. "I don't like to talk about personalities," he says. Coaxed a bit, he finally says: "Michael has a kind of vulnerability. She's vulnerable to everything going on around her." Then he clams up: "I don't want to talk about this."


Producer Lee Rich takes the bull by the horns: "She's extremely talented and disciplined in her professional life. Like many of us, she can't cope with problems in her personal life. Sudden success is part of the problem. This was a lady leading a quiet life. Suddenly, she's had nation-wide success thrust upon her. It's hard for her. She's a shy lady. She's astounded by what has happened to her so fast. But she's making a fantastic effort, and she's getting her life straightened out. She's a lovely lady. I find her warm and giving and tremendously concerned about other people, other people's illnesses. She listens. She gives. And she's very close about her own problems"


There are people in this world who, because of pain, tend to keep their beauty locked inside, and surround it with prickly defenses. Michael Learned seems to be such a person. Like a human castle, she's surrounded by a moat of troubled water, and she locks her strength and artistic discipline inside. But that is really where she lives, and from that creative center she is a "giving" person. Above all, she "gives" as an artist. And in this sense, she is strikingly similar to the disciplined, nurturing Olivia she plays on the screen.



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